Four Generations – One Workplace – Can We All Work Together?

By: Melissa Proffit Reese - Partner, Ice Miller LLP

Many people are starting to talk about it, but no one appears to know exactly what to do about it. What is “it?” Multiple generations working together in the business world.

In our personal lives we have always had individuals within the family unit that represent many generations (at least 2 if not 4 or 5). Therefore, most people know how to relate and communicate with people from other generations to accomplish goals and make decisions on a personal level. Then why (you may ask) don’t we just carry these skills over to the workplace?

Perhaps it is because the line of authority and ultimate decision maker is clearer in the family unit than the business environment, maybe it is because rarely, if ever, is the youngest generation in a position of authority or power over the older generation, or maybe it is because the multiple generations in a family often share the same basic value system. Whatever the reason…the result is clear – employees are struggling with generational differences in the workplace and that means employers need to focus on the issue before productivity (and profit) takes a downhill turn.

So who are these 4 generations? According to Linda Gravett and Robin Throckmorton in their recently released book, Bridging the Generation Gap, there are 5 generations in our world today, 4 of which have attained working age. Specifically, Gravett and Throckmorton provide that the following names, birth range and common characteristics of the working generations as follows:

·Radio Babies: born 1930-1945; conservative, fiscally prudent, and loyal to their employers.

·Baby Boomers: born 1946-1964; ambitious, greedy, materialistic, aging flower children who channeled their energies into “making love, not war” before selling out in the 1980s.

·Generation Xers: born 1965-1976; independent, highest number of divorced parents, dual-income families, self-sufficient (e.g., took care of chores and other responsibilities after school and before parents returned home from work).

·Generation Ys: born 1977-1990; grew-up in a similar environment as Generation Xers, but with a different parenting style (e.g., timeouts, not spankings, very protective parents); extremely conscious of the global environment; open minded and accepting of differences in race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, etc; socially conscious; concerned with personal safety.

So why should employers care if employees in the different generations respect and understand each other? In a word: Retention. The costs associated with employee turnover are enormous (e.g. training, loss of employee morale, advertising for applicants, interviewing, productivity, etc.). Gravett and Throckmorton estimate that costs to replace an employee may total up to 150% of the employee’s annual salary, depending on skill level. In addition, the knowledge and talent that will be lost due to the retirement of the older generations without appropriate transition among generations could be financially devastating to companies. The employees coming into the labor force (Generation Y) are powerful in numbers and will be needed to make up for the shortage due to the retirement of the Radio Babies and the Baby Boomers. If employers don’t help breakdown communication barriers now, they will find themselves short of talented workers when they are really needed.

So what are the obstacles to bringing employees from the older generations together with employees from the younger generations for knowledge sharing? Competing personal desires that differ by generation, coupled with a lack of trust are difficult barriers to overcome to allow for knowledge-sharing to take place. For example, Radio Babies are ready for retirement and need to be provided an incentive to stay. Whereas, Generation Y (a very large generation) is not afraid of change and in fact, enjoy variety. A lack of fear regarding change, coupled with an enjoyment of variety, is important personal desires that employers must recognize. Identifying the driving personal wants of the generations is the first step to help foster knowledge-sharing.

Once the personal desires of the different generations are recognized and addressed accordingly (e.g. flexible work schedules for individuals ready to retire, creating a rotational job change for young professionals, etc.), the focus should shift to identifying communication barriers. Individuals from the younger generations often feel that older generations do not respect or trust their ideas and therefore, leave the younger generation workers feeling undervalued. The older generation frequently perceives that the younger generation lack work ethic, and respect for authority and institutional practices. These perceptions (whether true or not) lead to an inability to communicate. It is essential for an employer to identify the cause of the mistrust (which is almost always the root of any lack of communication) and work to build trust.

Five tips employers can implement to narrow the generational communication gap:

1. Be aware. Consider your workforce make up and needs over the next several years – even decades – (including costs due to turnover). Do you have multiple generations currently…will you in the near future? The remainder of the tips assumes the answer is yes.

2. Be enlightening. Educate your employees, including your managers, regarding the differences amongst the generations and show this as a strength. Diversity of thought and approach makes an organization stronger and more appealing to more people and to more customers. If we all thought the same way, we would never develop new ideas, embrace change and move our organizations forward.

3. Be open. Talk about generational issues in a friendly environment. Let employees share their experiences and viewpoints in a safe atmosphere. It’s ok to have these differences — but you need to know how to manage them. Listen to all viewpoints and don’t just talk once – engage in frequent discussions about the topic.

4. Be a good example. Model respect and understanding from the top down. Create a flexible cultural environment. For example, if a Generation Y employee works from home on projects that do not require interaction with others, do not downplay the importance of that employee’s contribution to the project or the employee. In fact, take the opportunity to highlight how contributions can be made from anywhere.

5. Be creative. Establish multiple incentive programs tailored to your company’s various generations. Toss out the idea that one benefit package fits all. For example, an employer may entice a Generation Y employee to increase customer satisfaction by rewarding the employee with free Internet access for a month after a specified number of customers complete an online (favorable) evaluation of the employee. Determine what employees want and reward them with it.

So how do you make sure your company is a great place to work for every generation? First, identify the generations in your workforce and their needs. Then, identify the communication barriers. Next, implement the 5 steps described above. Take the information that you obtain from steps 1-4 and think “out of the box” to create incentives and benefit packages as described in step 5. What is the right incentive structure for your workforce? It depends. No two workforces are alike, therefore, no two benefit strategies will be the same. However, you should know what your competition is doing—as a starting point. After you know where to start, take it to the next level. Listen to your employees. If you are genuine in your desire to work with all generations to create a positive and productive work environment, your employees will be open and honest and tell you what they want, and will also try to give you what you need to be a successful organization.

Guest Blogger, Melissa Proffitt Reese, is a Partner in Ice Miller’s Employee Benefits Practice Group.

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